Carlsen and Nepomniachtchi draw World Chess title opener after flag fury | World Chess Championship 2021

Simmering tension on the board, unexpected drama outside. Magnus Carlsen’s defense of his world chess title in Dubai began with a 45-move draw against his Russian opponent Ian Nepomniachtchi – and a surprise intervention by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The first game of the 14-match encounter, which came with a €2 million prize pool, was eagerly watched by hundreds of thousands of spectators online – another sign of the chess boom that gathered pace in the start of the pandemic and again after the Netflix series. The Queen’s Gambit.

It turned out to be an intriguing opening day, which began hours before the first move when Wada warned chess governing body Fide that she had to change Nepomniachtchi’s flag or violate the rules of international sport.

Since December 2019, the flag, anthem and “name in any form” of Russia have been banned from showing in world championship events for two years. This meant that the Nepomniachtchi flag, which initially read “Russian Chess Federation“, was considered illegal and had to be quickly replaced with the initials CFR.

Fide President Arkady Dvorkovich later confirmed Wada’s intervention to the Guardian, adding: “Yes, we are in contact. We checked several times with them. Maybe at some point our team figured out that we could have the full name, but then they said “no, that should be an abbreviation”. It’s that simple.”

When the game started, Carlsen, the highest rated chess player in history, and Nepomniachtchi, who is a big underdog here, quickly foiled their first moves in a Ruy Lopez.

On the eighth move, Carlsen created a surprise by playing Na5 which offered a pawn sacrifice. Yet his Russian opponent refused to blink and immediately responded by taking the pawn.

This is the way of modern chess: with players using chess engines and supercomputers to discover new poisons to inflict on their opponents – and to find antidotes.

Defending champion Magnus Carlsen (right) and challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi faced off. Photography: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

The two men continued to probe each other cautiously, before finally, at move 13, Nepomniachtchi began to think. The computers showed he had only a slim advantage, despite his extra pawn, with Carlsen’s pair of bishops giving him compensation.

As a complex match entered the fourth hour, he seemed to be slightly better placed. However, a minor inaccuracy meant the game ended in a repeat. “I should have played Nf4,” admitted Carlsen. “It was a bit poor. I thought in the end maybe he could try to play, but I think realistically he was quite far from winning.

The growing popularity of the game is such that the largest chess site in the world, Chess.com, told The Guardian that when the World Championship was last held in 2018, it had less than half a million daily active users on its site. Now it has more than four million. Another popular site, Lichess.orgsaid it expected an audience of between 1.5 and 2 million people spread across the three weeks of the match, across its various content mediums.

Meanwhile, Chess24 – which is owned by Carlsen – is also investing significantly in world championship coverage this year with studio TV production, multiple broadcasts for beginners and advanced chess players.

Those watching certainly saw an intriguing build-up to the game. When the Guardian asked Nepomniashchi about his flag ban, which came after WADA ruled that Russia deliberately erased and manipulated doping data stored in a Moscow lab to prevent its athletes from being punished for taking banned drugs, he admitted he was disappointed.

“The whole situation is really frustrating,” he said. “The country is technically not banned but the anthem and the flag have to be replaced. So it’s very sad. But at the same time, my patriotic feeling comes from within.

The decision applies to the World Chess Championships as Fide is recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the supreme body responsible for organizing the sport. Violating the ban could have serious consequences for Fide.

However, Nepomniachtchi, who is ranked fifth in the world, said he was quite happy to start the opener with a draw despite having the advantage of playing with the white pieces. “I was very slightly optimistic the whole game because it was quite a curious line from black,” he said. “But while losing a pawn in the late game, it was very difficult to win something for white.”

Carlsen also seemed quite pleased, adding: “I wouldn’t say I was ever particularly optimistic about winning the game. I feel like I’m shaking a little sometimes. [There were] definitely things I could have done better, but overall I think the result was pretty fair.

Thirteen more matches will be played over the next three weeks and Carlsen’s popularity is such that more than a dozen Norwegian journalists are in Dubai to cover the event, which is also shown on US television channel NBC.

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